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Russia-Poland: Learning How to Talk to Each Other

Igor IvanovThe November 25-27 visit of Igor Ivanov, Russia's Foreign Minister, to Warsaw has one specific feature: its main theme will be the "cultural, humanitarian and scientific aspects of the Russian-Polish dialogue". At least, the forthcoming session of the committee for the development strategy of Russian-Polish co-operation in Warsaw will be held under this slogan.

Essentially, this means that the Poles and Russians need to learn to talk to each other again. Diplomats formulate this in their own way: they speak about the need to "liberate public consciousness from the historically established negative stereotypes", to "strengthen trust within the framework of the uniting Europe", etc.

One might think that diplomats in both countries have more important problems to tackle, especially considering the fact that the situation in Poland does not differ much from that in the other Eastern European countries that are set to join the European Union on May 1, 2004. The result will be a legal vacuum in their trade relations with Russia. Previously, there were special documents regulating Russia's trade with the EU countries, and other, bilateral documents regulating its trade with East European countries. Now, stacks of new documents have to be adopted by May, otherwise it will be very difficult for Russia (as distinct from Germany, for instance) to trade with Poland. Then there are "extra problems with people's contacts", i.e. the visas without which it will be impossible to travel to Eastern Europe.

These might seem like purely technical problems. After all, Russia's trade with Poland has been growing in recent years (by the end of 2003, it may exceed 6 billion dollars). Indeed, Russia's relations with nearly all the East European countries have been improving over the past two to three years. There are two reasons for this. The first is Russia's unexpected economic growth, perhaps the fastest in Europe, and the second is Russia's rapprochement with "old" EU members (France, Germany, the Netherlands, etc.) largely caused by this growth. East Europeans realised that they were in isolation and began developing their relations with Moscow, which had become rather cool by that time. Poland is a good example of the above said.

At the same time, it shows that the political climate for our contacts cannot be ignored. However, some very strange things have occurred in this sphere.

For Russian journalists, the October visit of some Moscow editors to Poland has already become almost legendary. It was organised by the Polish foreign ministry's department for cultural relations with foreign countries. Adam Rotfeld, Poland's deputy foreign minister, met Russian journalists and told them, among other things, that during last year's tragedy at the Dubrovka Theatre Centre "the bloodiest model of the anti-terrorist operation was chosen because human life is still not valued in Russia".

How would Polish journalists have reacted if a Russian diplomat had made such a remark? Perhaps, they would call him a "great-power Russian chauvinist who cannot reconcile himself with the fact that the country on the banks of the Vistula River is no longer in the sphere of Moscow's influence."

As it happens, the last phrase comes from a rather typical Polish media publication. Polish journalists covering Russia acknowledge that stories casting Russia in an unfavourable light (on rampant crime and corruption in Russia, dire poverty and people's degradation, the authorities' attack on big business, etc.) are in great demand now. The question then arises: who creates this demand, especially for the gloomy facts of the past decade?

Russian journalists are, possibly, also to blame for their lack of enthusiasm with regard to Polish "exposures". Otherwise, they would have dedicated more column inches to Polish corruption, prostitution, faked products or, for example, an interesting story about "French" missiles discovered by Poles in Iraq. This was probably Warsaw's way of expressing "gratitude" to Paris for its help to Poland in its bid to join the European Union. However, since nobody creates the demand for such information in Russia, it rarely features in any reports.

It seems that concern about the country's image in today's Europe should be connected, to some extent, with concern about the image of this country's partners. This will be discussed during the Russian foreign minister's visit to Warsaw. Practical steps that can be made in this direction will also be considered. This is both a political and economic problem, because investors in an economy need a good climate. And, finally, this is a question of good manners: continually snubbing each other is not the best way of communication.

Dmitry Kosyrev, RIAN